Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan (D) died Wednesday morning at the age of 74 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

A Vietnam War veteran who was captured behind enemy lines, Kernan first assumed statewide office in 1996, when he was elected lieutenant governor under Frank O’Bannon. He was reelected in 2000 and became governor in 2003 when O’Bannon was killed by a stroke.

He served as governor until 2005, when he lost his election bid against Republican Mitch Daniels.

Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) confirmed the death Wednesday, praising Kernan as a “bona fide American hero” and a “truly selfless statesman.” 

“Distinguished isn’t a strong enough word to describe him. Without regard for personal cost, Joe Kernan devoted every ounce of his life, time and again, to upholding the oath he took, and serving the country and state he loved,” Holcomb said in a statement. “Through his decades of servant leadership and sacrifice, Joe Kernan modeled all the best of what it means to be a Hoosier and his legacy will continue to live on in each of us whom he inspired.” 

Vice President Pence, who served as governor of Indiana prior to joining the Republican presidential ticket in 2016, described Kernan as a “steady hand of leadership at a difficult time for our state.”

“Even though our politics differed, Joe Kernan was always kind, always willing to work together for Hoosiers, and Joe Kernan was my friend,” Pence said.

“Karen and I send our deepest sympathies to Maggie and the entire Kernan family as they mourn the passing of this good man and dedicated public servant.”

Kernan’s career in public service got its start in Vietnam when he was a Navy lieutenant. He was shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam, ultimately spending 11 months as a prisoner of war.

He later returned to Indiana and began a career as a businessman. In 1980, he was asked to serve as the city controller in South Bend, Ind., and was later elected to three consecutive terms as the city’s mayor. 

Kernan made history as governor by tapping Kathy Davis to serve as his No. 2, the first woman ever to serve as Indiana’s lieutenant governor.

He ultimately retired from politics after losing his bid for his first full term as governor in 2005.

Leaders from the state heaped praise on Kernan, touting both his military and government record.

“There will not be another like Joe Kernan. South Bend will always be proud of his heroism in uniform and his leadership as our mayor and Governor,” tweeted Pete Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend mayor.

“After being shot down in Vietnam and spending eleven months as a prisoner of war, Joe could have been forgiven for feeling like he had done enough for this country,” added Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett (D). “But there was no ‘enough’ in his DNA, and he spent the rest of his life tirelessly serving his city, this state, and a grateful nation.”

Kernan is survived by his wife and seven siblings.

Updated at 12:38 p.m.

Tags Eric Holcomb Indiana Joe Kernan Mike Pence Pete Buttigieg Prisoner of war Vietnam War

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video